ROCHESTER, Minn. — Havi Carel, a distinguished professor of philosophy and medicine in Bristol, England, was struggling last summer to get her 7-year-old to sit for another Zoom play date.
As children often do, he blurted out a question that summed up something she had been struggling to put into words.
"What's the point," her child asked about sitting down to face the friends waiting on his iPad, "if I can't touch them?"
From the mouths of babes.
It may not be the best time to bring this up, what with the entire Midwest experiencing uncontrolled spread of illness and hospitals filling up. But in our rush to adopt a range of strange new social distancing practices, we've yet to take inventory of the losses that have accompanied our elbow bumps, 6-foot berths, wiping of surfaces and virtual-only happy hours.
To do that, Carel says, would be to highlight a profound disruption of our sense of trust and belonging in the world created by social distancing. It would also suggest that we will look at our lives and needs differently in the aftermath of the pandemic.
"Various elements of pandemic experience are characterised by suspicion, uncertainty, and doubt," as the scholar of phenomenology and illness wrote last summer in the medical journal The Lancet. "We may distrust the air we breathe and the surfaces we touch ... strangers suddenly seem [like] unpredictable sources of potential danger."
This new uncertainty can even make us "doubt and question every bodily discomfort," in Carel's words.
"Is my throat sore?" she writes of these thoughts we all bat down daily. "What was that cough?" During Covid these are but a few of the questions pushing other thoughts out, a baseline of uncertainty that permeates our days and never fully goes away.
Even mundane actions like handwashing now raise their own set of questions, she says, uncertainty like, "Have I done it well enough?"
In this way, Carel says, though we may opine at length about the effects of COVID-19 on mental health, what we really are talking about is the fact of Covid having removed the person-to-person gestures, habits and interactions that tell us how to be in the world.
The elbow bump is not only being learned, she says, the handshake is simultaneously being mourned as an object of loss. This "can dismantle an everyday, habitual confidence," she argues. It's something to think about, as our nation rages over its divisions.
Carel explored these questions on Tuesday, Nov. 3 for a lecture titled "The Phenomenology of Social Distancing," a talk delivered via webstream and now available online.
"The natural way we interact with people has been radically disrupted," she explained. "Going into a supermarket has become profoundly stressful, creating isolation, anxiety and loneliness." And it's not just for the reasons everyone thinks -- because the toilet paper has been hoarded, or the person next to you has a mask below their nose.
"What we had before was different," she said. "We existed in a pregiven world which provided us with norms we used for interacting with other people. Going to a cafe in the evening, a lot of norms were [understood]. You stand at a certain distance from other people. You sit at your table, but you can get up to walk to the bar or bathroom or wherever. You can speak to other people freely.
"All of this background information gave us certainty and knowledge about how to navigate ourselves in the world," she says. "But now it has now been replaced by medically-driven edicts about how we should behave with other people."
It isn't a diatribe against social distancing. Instead, Carel wants a little awareness of how these new rules have put us on edge. Visits were once "embodied" after all. They involved bodies, in the same room, and you picked up cues from other people's body language, dress and gestures. It was a foundation of how we interact, and for now, it is gone.
This isn't all bad, Carel says.
We have more solidarity, time, and less consumerism.
Lockdowns have offered a "once in a life opportunity to hit the pause button," on our beliefs about how much stuff we really need.
They have awakened our appreciation for schools, health systems, bus drivers. They have even given us a shared global experience.
But chances are, like Carel's son, we will never fully believe Zoom is the same as "being with" others.
"Seeing ourselves while speaking is extremely unnatural," she points out. "We don't ordinarily monitor our facial expressions all the time, and because we have to see ourselves in that little box on Zoom, now we do."
"Small children get almost nothing out of an online interaction," she adds. On the whole, "we've lost a lot more than we've gained."